"Golden Age" Westerns
Many consider the 1940s through the 1960s to be the "golden age" of the western, a time when the major movie studios' output of top quality westerns was high and the genre enjoyed widespread popularity.
Depending on the opinion of any given viewer, the golden age of westerns may be thought to end in the 1950s or sometime in the 1960s. Whenever the period is considered to have ended, most agree that the success of John Ford's classic Stagecoach in 1939 helped precipitate a significant increase in the production of prestige, or "A," westerns by major studios. Stagecoach, with its artful combination of picturesque western setting, action, suspense, moral drama, and sophisticated character development, raised the bar for a genre that had largely become the domain of "B" films and serials during the 1930s.
This section will provide a brief summary of the shift from silent to talking westerns at the end of the 1920s, the developments in the genre during the 1930s leading up to Stagecoach, and some of the highlights of the 1940s through the 1960s when the western was booming. Due to the limited scope of this section, it is impossible to touch upon all films, stars, or directors that made a mark in the genre during this period, though as many films as possible will be covered in this site's weekly film summaries.
From silent to talking westerns
As the 1920s and the silent film era drew to a close, it was an uncertain time for the western. The introduction of sound to motion pictures was a technical challenge for outdoor productions like westerns, and studios were cautious as they made the transition. Some believed that recording outdoor sound pictures was impossible, or simply too great a financial burden. Camera noise, equipment immobility, and the limits of sound recording devices themselves brought extra technical challenges to the outdoor scenes and fast-paced action sequences that had become the norm for silent westerns.
A transitional solution to these challenges was to release part-talking, part-silent films in which a few scenes would feature recorded dialogue while the rest of the film would be silent. Interior scenes and shots that allowed for a stationary camera were the easiest in terms of adding live-recorded dialogue. At times, sound was simply grafted on to certain scenes, or a talking introduction might be added to an otherwise silent film in an attempt to capitalize on the "talking picture" phenomenon. Sound effects and music could also be added to some scenes later if recorded dialogue was not feasible.
Another technical hurdle presented itself during the early sound period: even if sound were added to a film, many movie houses were not yet wired to project that sound. To get around this challenge, studios sometimes created different versions of the same film-- all-silent, part-talking, and all-talking versions of the same movie might be released simultaneously to meet the needs of various theaters.
The first major, all-talking outdoor western feature film came with Fox's release of In Old Arizona in 1929. Starring Warner Baxter as the Cisco Kid, the film was well-received at the time and won Baxter an Academy Award for Best Actor. The film also planted a seed for what a few years later would become a phenomenon-- the "singing cowboy" hero. (The Cisco Kid's love song to his girl Tonia plays a significant role in the plot of the film.)
The image of cowboys singing campfire/work songs on film was certainly not new (William S. Hart's cowboy companions "sang" via title cards in the silent western Tumbleweeds, for example), but obviously the sound medium opened up new possibilities. In Old Arizona's effective use of music certainly influenced other western players such as Ken Maynard to include songs in their sound productions of the early 1930s, and the trend caught on. Even John Wayne played a singing cowboy in the low-budget Riders of Destiny (Lone Star Productions, 1933), though his singing voice was dubbed in the film. The "singing cowboy" film would eventually evolve into its own special brand of western and would reach an apex in popularity with stars like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers.
Another major western feature film of the early sound era was Cimarron, released in 1931 by RKO Pictures. Cimarron is an epic western that tells the story of the opening of the Oklahoma Territory and its development on the road to statehood. The land rush sequences in the beginning of the film, reminiscent of William S. Hart's Tumbleweeds, are quite impressive. Cimarron won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Other major western features of the early sound era include The Virginian (Paramount, 1929), which helped solidify Gary Cooper as an iconic western star; The Big Trail (Fox, 1930) an epic western about a wagon train heading west that gave John Wayne his first major starring role (the film fizzled at the box office, and Wayne remained in low-budget productions until 1939's Stagecoach revitalized his career); Billy The Kid (MGM, 1930) starring Johnny Mack Brown in a sympathetic if historically inaccurate portrayal of William Bonney; and The Spoilers (Paramount, 1930), the first sound version of this often-filmed story, starring Gary Cooper.
The 1930s: The decade of the B western
In addition to the few big-studio westerns being released during the transition to sound, there were a number of small studios continuing to crank out low-budget westerns as well. These small companies--which over the years would include the likes of Ajax, Mascot, Liberty, Monogram, and Republic-- were often referred to as "Poverty Row" studios, partly in reference to the physical location of their offices, but mostly due to the fact that their films were made quickly and on the cheap.
Poverty Row westerns would often grace the lower portion of the double bills that became popular during the Depression. Value-conscious moviegoers were lured to the cinema with the promise of more than one feature film for the price of their ticket-- a big-budget "A" film and a low-budget "B" film (plus newsreels, short subjects, and perhaps a serial). These so-called B westerns would be an entertainment staple for years to come.
The major studios also produced their own B westerns to meet the demand for double bills. Between the numerous Poverty Row westerns and big studio production of low-budget oaters, the 1930s was very much a decade in which the B western reigned as the mainstay of the genre.
Though B westerns were generally made with smaller budgets and tended to be shorter than prestige pictures, many were quite popular and very successful at the box office. In smaller film markets such as rural areas, B westerns and other B films would often be packaged together and featured without an accompanying A picture. Indeed, some of the biggest B cowboy stars and popular series westerns of the 1930s (such as Gene Autry, John Wayne, and the Three Mesquiteers films, to name a few) enjoyed immense success in such markets.
A number of former silent western stars would continue their work in 1930s B westerns, including Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Harry Carey, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, and Buck Jones. New B western stars also emerged during the decade, including Gene Autry, William Boyd (a former star of the silent era whose career was revitalized as B western hero Hopalong Cassidy), Randolph Scott, Charles Starrett, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.
As mentioned previously, one notable area of development in B westerns of the mid-1930s was the "singing cowboy" hero. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in particular perfected the singing cowboy formula and raised it to levels of immense popularity and commercial success. Rogers and Autry would continue their successes through the 1940s and into the 50s, making the transition from B movies to television.
The renewal of the A western
1939 proved to be a great year for the prestige western. As mentioned earlier, Stagecoach (Walter Wanger Productions) had an immense impact on the genre, bringing renewed interest in the production of big-budget, high-profile westerns. Stagecoach returned director John Ford to the western, a genre in which he would masterfully leave his mark for decades to come. It also launched John Wayne as a bona fide star.
But Stagecoach was not the only big-budget western of that year. Also released in 1939 were the lighthearted romp Destry Rides Again (Universal), starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich; the "taming of the frontier" historical western Dodge City (Warner Brothers), starring Errol Flynn; Cecil B. DeMille's railroad epic Union Pacific (Paramount), and the very popular and influential Jesse James (Fox), a loosely biographical picture starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank James.
As the 1930s came to a close, the prestige western was poised for its comeback, and B westerns would continue to march along in force until television westerns would supplant them in the 1950s.
STILL TO COME in this section:
Westerns of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s
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Classic Westerns on TCM
Westerns on Fox Movie Channel